The chain of future conflict, part 2

See part 1 here.

A ship carrying Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka has landed on the shores of my hometown in Canada. Some of them may be members of the Tamil Tigers, but there are hundreds of men, women and children on board.

This event is not an isolated incident. First, it is not the first boatload of Tamil refugees to wash up on Canada’s shores since the end of the civil war last year. Second, it is not the first boatload of refugees from the wartorn world to appear in the rich world. This ship is part of a trend that we would be foolish to ignore or misread.

When originally outlining the chain of future conflict, I posited the following pattern.

* Climate change and other environmental damage will put pressure on and destroy local environments in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
* People will be forced to move to other countries to survive.
* Barriers to immigration will rise.
* Those who are kept out will fight with the elites over scarce resources.
* Those who make it into other countries will be looked upon as wretched and unable to integrate.
* The incidence of war among those whose environments are threatened, whether or not they migrate, will increase.
* A new kind of refugee, the Environmental Refugee, will emerge.

The refugee boat trend is slightly different, as it is not related to environmental change but conventional war. War and conflict have not abated in our brave new world and are not ready to end any time soon. As a result, more refugees will appear on the shores of the rich world.

The immediate reaction is to raise barriers to immigration. The US border with Mexico, for instance, which is fighting a terrible drug war, is the object of a debate on whether to erect an enormous fence to keep Mexicans out. The Canadian government’s approach to the Sri Lankan refugees has so far been somewhat more compassionate: letting them alight in Canada and then determining if they should be sent back or not.

This approach may be the most realistic, at least at the moment. However, should refugee numbers increase, it might become wishful thinking. Criminalising refugees tends not to decrease numbers of refugees but increase the amount of violence employed in both bringing them in and sending them back. Sending Canada’s navy to intercept today’s boats costs money. If too many boats come, which is the fear, more naval vessels will be dispatched to stop them. At some point that I will let economists estimate, it could cost more money to stop people coming in than to let them in.

Moreover, criminal syndicates are heavily involved in human trafficking and their income and power increases when a market is prohibited. If there is demand, someone will fill it; if the act is illegal, it will continue but in the form of crime.

The current course may be politically and economically realistic at present, but if trends continue we will need new policies and attitudes to survive the possible nightmares of the future. Putting more effort into ending war and environmental destruction is one possibility. More intercultural education and integration is another. Criminalising everything we find unpleasant is not.

War crimes in Sri Lanka, but does it matter?

International law exists partly to deter the worst actions by governments. But so many violations of international law go unpunished. Much has been done by international actors such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its sponsors, and national courts invoking universal jurisdiction such as Spain’s and Britain’s to end impunity. But in general, international law is very hard to enforce and impunity is the rule, not the exception.

That is why the opening of a new chapter in the debate about war crimes committed by Sri Lanka’s government against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) might be pointless. Several groups, including Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, accuse the Sri Lankan government of war crimes. But while these groups can investigate, put together reports, publish findings and so on, they have no power to bring criminals to justice.

Leaving aside the fact that both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers probably violated international law, the remaining question is, does it matter? Will anyone be brought to justice over it? The ICC has done a reasonably good job so far, with the help of national authorities, in prosecuting the most egregious offenders, but the fact that many of its indictees, such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, run free, is testament to the challenges the system has yet to overcome. But the progress made since World War Two has been impressive. It should continue. All Sri Lankan leaders, Tamil and Sinhalese, who violated human rights should be held accountable.

Be careful what lessons we draw from the defeat of the Tamil Tigers

Every war presents opportunities for its participants to make peace. It also presents learning opportunities for those of us attempting to observe and analyse it. That is why it is important to draw the right lessons from each conflict.

The war in Sri Lanka is sometimes portrayed as a war between the state and a terrorist organisation, and therefore, the defeat of the Tamil Tigers was the defeat of a terrorist group. Some are calling the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran equivalent (at least for Sri Lanka) to the killing of Osama bin Laden. However, this conclusion may be misleading.

The problem is with the word “terrorist”. Groups that are labeled terrorist organisations are very broad in scope, so merely being called terrorists says little about them. It may be prudent to note that the Tamil Tigers were the de facto government of much of the Tamil area of Sri Lanka for decades. Many terrorist organisations only have the power to scare outsiders into political action.

While negotiations were persistently beset by setbacks until their very end, the Tigers were nonetheless a group that could be negotiated with. But many terrorist groups cannot be negotiated with, nor can they be defeated militarily. These groups have highly decentralised structures and move through the people as a fish swims in the water, as Mao said. The Tigers could not have been swimming among the people if they were decisively beaten, without the army killing virtually all Tamil citizens to get at the Tigers.

Sri Lanka is now at a crucial point in its history. The Sinhalese government has defeated the Tigers because they can be defeated, and must negotiate with them because they can negotiate. If the winning side breaks promises, punishes ethnic Tamils and does nothing to help them integrate into the wider Sri Lankan state, it might not be long until there is more violence. It will not have defeated terrorism. It will have squandered the opportunity for learning and for peace.

Can Sri Lanka find peace?

I have some questions about the current conflict in Sri Lanka. If we can answer them, Sri Lanka might be able to find peace after the dust clears.

First, are the government’s actions legal? If the Sri Lankan military are doing all they can to minimise civilian casualties, including letting them escape, then it should be legal. The problem is that reporting on this conflict (like most) is very difficult and determining lies and truth about this conflict (like most) is even harder.

Second, how do you wipe out a terrorist movement? I recognise that not all war is wrong, at least in this warlike world we live in, and that sometimes fighting is necessary to make progress on peace. If possible, it may be a good idea to try to wipe out the terrorist group altogether. That said, how does one go about doing that? The conventional wisdom is, for every terrorist killed, another is created, or two or five are created, as angry friends and relatives swear revenge; but the more I hear conventional wisdom, the more I doubt it. Surely, if they know who the members of the movement are, they can wipe it out. Then again, perhaps there is more to the Tamil Tigers than their members and their bombs. Perhaps they have long ago spread their doctrine to the rest of the Tamil population of Sri Lanka and a new movement can start as soon as the old one dies.

Third, is war the best way to deter a separatist or terrorist movement? Decisive military victory makes it possible to secure peace. After a conflict, the reconciliation can begin. But again, perhaps this conflict will create more angry people, and more desire for separation among Sri Lankan Tamils. The Sri Lankan government has its work cut out for it if the next step is to securing long-lasting peace. And if that is not the next step, expect another Tiger movement.

I believe that most people in Sri Lanka want peace after all these years of bloodshed. If the political leadership of both sides is committed, and works fast after this battle that the Sinhalese seem poised to win, then there is a chance for a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.